To be clear, some occupations are much bigger than the prison population: More than 4 million Americans worked in retail sales last year, and more than 6 million served food and drinks. Still, the Justice Department’s prison number doesn’t include inmates who are incarcerated in county or city jails. That number is hard to come by, since counties and cities keep their own records and don’t report to a central authority.
A few years ago, even more people were locked up. But states around the country have begun pulling back from the sentencing policies that characterized the war on drugs, and the prison population has declined by about 45,000 inmates from its peak in 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Even so, there are nearly five times as many people in prison as there were in 1980, when the drug war was just getting underway. “Nearly half of the inmates filling our federal prisons are incarcerated for drug offenses,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said in a statement last week.